A screenshot of what appears to be a web-search box at the top of a Facebook page has been making the rounds, with AllFacebook suggesting it is part of a beta test of a new search feature. Facebook has denied this is the case, and the image appears to be a result of Photoshop or some external service adding a box to the page. Regardless of whether the page is a fake or not, the giant social network is almost certain to add more search features. It’s just a matter of time. And yes, Google should be afraid.
Facebook is already involved in search to a certain extent. The company did a deal with Microsoft last fall to add results from its network to the Bing search engine, and Blekko — the search engine startup launched by Rich Skrenta last year — also has a search that includes social results based on Facebook “likes” and other activity. But so far, Facebook’s involvement consists of allowing Bing and Blekko to crawl or index its data rather than doing so itself.
Google, meanwhile, made a big show of launching social and real-time search earlier this year, but the reality is that the majority of what those searches pull in (apart from Google-related social activity) is Twitter results. As Google knows, when it comes to real-time social information, Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla. The network’s users spend 700 billion minutes a month on the site, and post 30 billion pieces of content, including likes and status updates and comments. But none of that shows up anywhere in Google’s social search, and given the history of tension between the two companies, there is little chance that it will.
You could argue that not indexing Facebook is a good thing, since much of what happens on Facebook is irrelevant or ephemeral and, therefore, doesn’t belong in a search engine. But much of what occurs on Twitter falls into the same category, and yet Google clearly feels there is utility in searching that content.
The reality is that social signals — what people share, what they comment on, what they click the “like” button on — are becoming an increasingly important part of identifying intent, and that’s what Google has built its business on. But Facebook is positioned far better in terms of taking advantage of that aspect of the social web than Google is, and the network was recently awarded a patent that gives some indication of what it is thinking about in terms of combining search and social signals.
Google continues to try to bolt on social elements to its services, including allowing users to vote down search results they don’t like, or adding toolbars and enhanced profiles. But the billions of clicks and uploads and “likes” from Facebook are something Google will never have, and can’t possibly duplicate. It seems obvious the social network will take advantage of all that information in the form of social search, and that has to be something keeping Google awake at night — or should be.